Wantagh youth does battle with allergies

12-year-old's family walk as 'Andy's Army'


Andy Braun, a 12-year-old who attends Wantagh Middle School, has struggled with food allergies his whole life. Despite the challenges, though, Andy and his family haven’t given in. On Sept. 29, family members, who call themselves Andy’s Army, marched in the annual Food Allergy Research and Education, or FARE, Food Allergy Heroes Walk in Wantagh Park.

The Braun family formed Andy’s Army eight years ago. The group includes as many relatives of Andy’s as can attend the walk. This year, Andy was sick with a viral infection and couldn’t attend, said his mother, Cathy, who is in her second year as local co-chair of FARE. Despite his absence, however, his family raised roughly $1,200.

Now in her fourth year in the organization, Cathy was a stay-at-home mom when she first joined. “I just felt like I had time, and I really wanted to get involved in a more meaningful way and really do as much as I possibly could to try to help them with their mission,” she said.

Each year, Cathy hopes to raise as much money as possible so FARE can continue funding research as experts search for a cure for food allergies. She hopes that once Andy is old enough to attend college, his allergies will no longer be an issue.

“That’s the stuff that’s scary to me,” she said. “When he’s a little older and out on his own, but maybe not paying as much attention as I would to what he’s going to eat.”

When Andy was an infant, he had a number of skin issues, and would throw up after drinking from his bottle, his mother said. After finding blood in his diapers, his pediatrician discovered that Andy was extremely lactose intolerant. Over the years, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts have been added to the list of his allergies, but dairy has remained the most difficult for him to manage.

Going out to eat is a challenge, Cathy said. And Andy has always had difficulties at school, especially when he was younger. “Once we found things that were safe for him to eat at home, it was pretty easy,” Cathy said. “But at other places, school and stuff, it’s harder to keep him included in feeling like he’s part of the group.”

Each year, an allergist tests Andy to see if any of his sensitivities have changed, or if there are any new ones. Cathy said that if he passes a “food challenge” for a particular food, it may be added to his diet. So far, he has been able to add only baked eggs.

“I think that’s the point every year where it gets a little bit depressing,” Cathy said. “We’ve been doing it for so long that, day to day, we have a good handle on it. But it’s always like a kick to the gut when you realize nothing has really changed, or here’s another thing he can’t eat. Those are the hard parts.

“I can remember, when he was first diagnosed,” she continued, “going to the grocery store, and just feeling completely overwhelmed and feeling like there was nothing that he could eat.”

The allergist recommended that the Braun family — Cathy and her husband, Scott, and Andy and his 13-year-old sister, Sarah — look into FARE, which Cathy said had a lot of information online that helped them learn to manage Andy’s allergies better.

Cathy said it has been nice to see how his allergies have made her son stronger and better able to deal with stress. Andy wants to make sure he’s doing everything he can to help himself, she said. “[It] isn’t always easy when you’re 12 and just want to be hanging out and playing video games with your friends,” she said. “It always has to be in the back of his head [whether] a snack is safe.”

Andy has had to learn how to use an epinephrine pen, in case he has a reaction to food when no one is around, Cathy said. “It’s kind of a lot of responsibility, knowing that you might have to save your own life,” she said.

According to a FARE news release, the Food Allergy Heroes Walk celebrates “the everyday heroes in our community — families, educators, health professionals, emergency responders, food workers and more, whose dedication helps keep the roughly 15 million Americans with food allergies safe.”

The first walk was held in 2004 in Chicago. Cathy said that the organization sponsors 40 walks nationwide between spring and fall, and the date of the Long Island walk varies. This year, 475 people walked, raising more than $70,000, according to Cathy.

“We are thrilled to have FARE’s Food Allergy Heroes Walk on Long Island, and are so grateful to the volunteers who have worked tirelessly on this event,” FARE CEO Lisa Gable said in a news release. “The past two decades have seen a dramatic increase in food allergy prevalence. One in 13 kids is affected, yet we don’t know the cause of this epidemic, and we don’t have any approved treatments yet. [The] walk draws attention to this life-threatening and life-altering disease and raises vital funds, so that FARE can expand its lifesaving research, education and advocacy initiatives.”